Qualifications Versus Experience in Today’s Job Market

Interviews, Professional, Specialist Applications

27th December 2020

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If you are anticipating entering the world of employment or switching career paths in the next few years, you may be wondering whether it is best to invest in your qualifications or your experience. In such a highly competitive job market, what are employers looking for? Do university qualifications really offer the best representation of an ideal candidate or are experience-based achievements and apprenticeships the best way to get your foot in the door?

With more and more students attending university each year, it may seem that the general employability census sways in favour of qualifications. There are many benefits to getting a degree and the fruits of independence, project management and organisation skills that fall with completing a university education. When it comes to Medicine, Veterinary Science, Engineering, Accountancy and other intellectually demanding roles, a university is essential to capturing a career in one of the leading roles. This is evidenced across the job vacancy web pages that teem with academic demands for entry-level positions. Beyond a theoretical understanding of the discipline, a degree offers the opportunity to develop key transferable skills.

However, beyond entry-level opportunities, the landscape is murkier. In fact, a recent survey found that 63% of employers deemed work experience to be critical when hiring, compared to 42% who thought the same of academic qualifications. Whatever the industry, most employers would agree that candidates with five or more years’ experience in the field would be an asset to the company. Real-world experience teaches things that textbooks cannot, such as working under pressure, punctuality, working with difficult clients, and rectifying workplace mistakes. As Julius Caesar once succinctly put it, ‘Experience is the teacher of all things’.

What this means for your career

So how do you know which is better when designing your own career? Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But, as a general principle, qualifications can provide the step in the door to secure the interview and the theoretical grounding to perform the role in a way that experience in alternative positions cannot. Even with ten years’ experience as a Healthcare Assistant, a candidate will not be qualified to be a nurse within today’s care standards. However, if two identically-minded candidates held a Nursing degree, one with ten more years’ experience would certainly have an edge. Once you’ve gained the basic qualifications to take that first step onto the career ladder, successful experience can be the most important propellent to climbing to more senior positions, developing responsibility and increasing pay.

Ultimately, whether qualifications or experience are opportune to landing that sought after position in the workplace largely depends on the sector and how important practical attributes are to that role. In many cases, being able to demonstrate both qualifications and practical experience can showcase a well-rounded spectrum of suitability. Where both qualifications and experience can be essential, the deciding factors in an employer’s decision when looking at a pool of eligible candidates will often rest on a prospective employee’s personable attributes, enthusiasm for the role and hard-working attitude.